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Settlement reached in Haskell University free speech case

February 9, 2022 GMT

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Haskell Indian Nations University has settled a lawsuit filed after a former university president sought to dictate what student journalists could report and write.

Free-speech advocates said the settlement agreement with former Haskell student journalist Jared Nally includes policy reforms that will protect students’ constitutional rights on the Haskell campus, The Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Nally sued school official s in October 2020 when the university’s then-president, Ronald Graham, sent him a directive telling him not to contact any government agency for information while representing the newspaper or “attack” any student, faculty member or staff in copy. Nally was editor of the student newspaper, The Indian Leader, at the time.

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Graham sent a letter to Nally on Jan. 13, 2021, rescinding the directive and admitting the university “took an incorrect approach” in issuing it.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works to protect free speech on college campuses, backed Nally in his lawsuit.

The group’s spokeswoman, Katie Kortepeter, said the settlement protects students’ First Amendment rights and safeguards the editorial independence of its student newspaper.

Nally, a senior at the time, filed a federal lawsuit against the university, Graham, the Bureau of Indian Education and its director.

In a consent decree signed Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, Haskell leaders agreed not to issue any similar directives related to First Amendment rights or to engage in any kind of retaliation.

“I hope this case not only protects the next generation of student journalists at Haskell, but empowers individuals at other institutions to realize they have rights and options when it comes to using their voice,” Nally said Tuesday.

Nally had argued that Haskell’s campus speech policy — called CIRCLE, for Communication, Integrity, Respect, Collaboration, Leadership and Excellence — was unconstitutionally broad and vague. Haskell had previously amended the student code, but in the settlement agreed not to reinstate the CIRCLE policy or any similar policy that aims to restrict student expression.

Nally had sought monetary damages from Graham and the court had earlier granted Graham’s motion to dismiss that claim. However, because the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a relevant case regarding First Amendment retaliation claims, the settlement did not contain an agreement on that issue.

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The vice president of litigation for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Darpana Sheth, said she hoped the Supreme Court would affirm that federal officials must pay damages when they violate free speech rights.

“Graham is a prime example of a federal official who abused his power and should not be shielded from the consequences,” Sheth said.

Graham was fired from Haskell in May 2021 after criticism that he had stifled free speech rights of students and faculty.

Tamarah Pfeiffer, a leader in the Bureau of Indian Education, became acting president of Haskell. The school directed questions about the settlement to the Bureau of Indian Education, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.